By Sharon George, AIA
It starts at the very beginning – girls vs. boys
The societal problem became crystal clear to me when I had my first child. All the pink toys, princess dolls, and kitchen sets screamed - GENDER BIAS. At first, it was just an interesting observation, harmless really, compared to some other egregious offenses. But it's not so benign, is it?
A year after my epiphany, Sheryl Sandberg gave her popular TED talk about women leaders. A few years later, I discovered Equity By Design [EQxD]. I am glad there is open dialogue about the challenges facing professional women. If there was such conversation and solidarity when I joined the workforce, I was not aware of it, and perhaps, I would have had better tools to deal with bias in the workplace. As it was, I had a very lonely journey.
Growing up with bias and privilege
As a female raised in India, gender bias is not a strange concept to me. It is widely prevalent and deeply rooted in the patriarchal society. On the bright side, I grew up in a large city, my parents are well educated, forward thinking, and middle class. My biggest privilege was access to education and freedom to pursue my career goals. (Millions in India, especially girls, do not have such opportunities.) Moreover, I had the means to accomplish my dreams of higher education in the United States.
Bias in America
I thought I would be escaping old-fashioned ideas of gender norms when I moved to America. After all, isn’t America a progressive melting pot, where social reform took place over a century ago, and women walk with their head held high?
So, when I hear comments or see behavior that exhibit patronizing attitudes towards my age, race, skin color, gender, or intelligence, I am taken aback.
I have been making excuses for people who treat me with prejudice - that it was an isolated incident, or the one person’s attitude, or their social ineptitude, or their insensitivity. Things got better as I got older, but looking back on 15 years of excuses reveals a sad and fundamental truth: Sexism is alive and well in American.
Bias in the professional world
When I was a young college student, I had the courage to snuff out prejudice. But when I entered the professional world, I was at a loss. I was a foreigner in the early stages of culture shock, with family 10,000 miles away and friends that I could count on one hand, searching for my place in a not-very inclusive community of professional cliques.
How do you build relationships in the proverbial boy’s club, when only the male employees are invited to lunch, golf, and conferences? How do you ask for equity when only the male architects are given the high-revenue, complex, prestigious projects? I had no answers and no support, and had lost all courage, confidence, and verve.
‘To a certain extent, all architects struggle to survive in a profession where the educational preparation is long, the registration process is rigorous, the hours grueling, and the pay is incredibly low. Yet, many underrepresented architects face additional hardships, such as isolation, marginalization, stereotyping, and discrimination.’
Designing for Diversity, Kathryn H. Anthony
Overt Vs. Implicit Bias
I came across the Implicit Association Test a few years ago when I read Ask For It. Most people are not sexist or racist or discriminatory. But everyone has subconscious bias. And that is the silent killer of equity in professional settings.
I did say most people – I have personally experienced blatant sexism and racism. I’ve had an employer ask me in an interview when I plan to get pregnant; if, as a mother, I can focus on work and be productive; I’ve had a colleague ignore me for 3 years; etc.
But more often, I am a target of implicit bias. It is so subtle that I feel awkward about raising a flag – maybe’s it’s just in my head, right? The male intern who sits in my project-team-meeting is treated to more eye-to-eye contact and a respectful handshake. The white project manager at my construction-site-tour is assumed to be my superior and gets all the questions. I am invisible!
The core issue - intelligence bias
My husband and I talk about these issues often. We compare our cultures, professions, and the 'bias baggage' we carry. He is an American, a computer engineer and a self-proclaimed geek. One day, he showed me this xkcd comic and said, there is this notion in America that girls are bad at math. As someone who excelled in math and science, I was fuming. Despite all the gender bias that is prevalent in India, I had never before heard that sentiment.
But that is how it works, isn’t it?
The unwritten memo says:
Women are incompetent, until proven otherwise
Men are competent, until proven otherwise
Competence and Knowledge:
I think the ridiculous notion that ‘women are not as smart as men’ speaks volumes. And it strikes at the heart of the issue facing women professionals in STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Architecture, Mathematics) fields.
People are very comfortable with women in an Interior Designer role. Furthermore, people are comfortable with me as an Architect talking design related issues. No offense to designers, but somehow, seeing a woman as the Project/Principal Architect is a big leap?
Is it because conversations about architecture typically include technical and practical discussions about construction, specifications, energy analyses, structural engineering, that I cannot worry my pretty little head with? Is that why I have to ‘prove myself’ over and over again, every time I meet a new builder/ structural engineer/ lighting consultant/ energy rater?
A young designer on my team recently asked me, what she can do to make her colleagues take her seriously. As her manager, my immediate answer was ‘be really good at what you do’. I was simply repeating what I told myself when I was starting out - work hard, dig deep, and earn respect. Nothing wrong with that except….do young men have this problem? I would like to have a better answer.
It seems like the conversation about equity in the workplace is coming to a head. Recognizing what discrimination looks like and knowing that it’s not just happening to me, but to many like me, is powerful knowledge that tips the balance towards action.
Active Action is speaking up, spreading awareness, sharing stories, opening dialogue, checking your own biases, etc. There are numerous organizations, all over the world, demanding women’s rights through active action. I have listed a few of my favorites below.
Some people are more comfortable with passive action. They listen, take their talents elsewhere, look for alternate careers, or set up their own workplace and their own rules. But no one is an island - sooner or later you have to collaborate with others.
I constantly check my attitudes and revisit my beliefs. Not just for my own sake, but for my son and daughter. I am sure that I have unconscious biases too. I better get unpacking*.
Taking Active Action:
Resources for Unconscious Bias
EQxD Get Real Series Posts
If you liked reading this feature, you may want to explore these other posts.
- EQxD Get Real Series: Bias & Privilege by Rosa Sheng, AIA
- EQxD Get Real: Being the Only One in the Room, by Mark Gardner, AIA
- EQxD Get Real: Be Willing to Listen | Recognize our Privilege and Bias, by Katherine Williams, AIA
- EQxD Get Real: The Weight by Marilyn Moedinger, AIA
- EQxD Get Real: Architecture - Open to All by Jared W. Smith, AIA
- EQxD Get Real: Bias & Privilege, should it define or limit your dreams? by LaShae Ferguson, Assoc. AIA
- EQxD Get Real: Check your bias blind spot by Sharon R. George, AIA
- EQxD Get Real: When Insomnia Speaks, by Alicia Liebel-Berg, Assoc. AIA
- EQxD Get Real: The Mom Bias vs. The Mom Privilege by Meghana Joshi, Assoc. AIA
- EQxD Get Real: I am Learning by Lora Teagarden, AIA